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Recent Sermons

Wrestling With God?


Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
August 6, 2017

Once again we visit Genesis and the ancient story of Jacob. When last I was here we heard the story of Jacob and Esau's birth, how they were pitted against one another because mom favored Jacob and dad favored Esau. With Mom's help Jacob managed to steal Esau's birthright as the oldest son.
When Michael Ellard was here speaking to you about joy, two weeks ago, I was at his church, College Heights, telling the story of Jacob's dream of a ladder to heaven, how he realized he was on sacred ground, and felt comforted and empowered by God's presence to continue his journey to the land of Abraham's ancestors to find a bride.
Now we pick up the story years later after Jacob had fallen in love with a younger sister, been forced to marry the older sister, Leah, first and wait many more years for the bride of his choice. Finally, he is heading home to the promised land of Abraham. He has been successful in his pursuits. Two wives, two maids, eleven chilren, plenty of livestock -- he is a wealthy man.

Returning home requires him to finally face his brother Esau and the choices he has made, good and bad. He must wrestle with his personal demons, his history, values, and ultimately with God. He sends everyone across the ford that leads to home and spends the night alone to prepare himself for whatever comes next. But instead of restful sleep he encounters a man (an angel? God?) who wrestles with him until dawn. This iconic wrestling with God is transformative for Jacob. He receives a new name ~ Israel ~ a name that means "One who strives with God." He proclaims the place Peniel or "I have seen God face to face!"
When he dreamt of a ladder going up to heaven he called that place Bethel, meaning "House of God." It was a sacred place and he set up an altar there.
Now he declares a place as sacred because he has experienced and survived a profound encounter with the Holy.

When was the last time you wrestled with God? When have you faced your own demons and found the center of your soul free and strong? Peter Koestenbaum, a modern philosopher, suggests "Getting into and out of the zone of freedom requires passing through a black hole, a meteor shower, a radioactive belt. The journey will not weaken you but strengthen you....In other words, our inner freedom, our free will, our core nature, is surrounded with anxiety, guilt, depression, pain, ennui, exhaustion, hopelessness, illness, frustration, betrayal, loss, abandonment, separation, insanity, ridicule, shame, betrayal, and death." It's a long list, but all of it effects all of us at one time or another. We all have plenty of reasons to be overwhelmed by life. But just as Jacob wrestled with God, we too can wrestle with all the challenges we face, and come out stronger and wiser for it.
I shared this story with our boys in Hillcrest Juvenile Hall this week. They seemed to intuitively understand what Jacob was going through. Jacob needed to be alone to ponder what came next. Just as they have had to spend time in the loneliness of a cell waiting to learn the consequences of their actions and the actions of others.

Jacob refused to let his circumstnnces end in chaos. Even as his hip was thrown out of joint and would cause him to limp for the rest of his life, life's lessons wounded him, changed him, but ultimately did not define him. What defined him was his commitment to transform that   experience into a blessing ~ He would not let go until he received a blessing!
I told the boys and I remind myself often that God is big enough and strong enough to handle our anger, our fears, our doubts. We need to wrestle with God, to challenge God when life is chaotic, to hold on until we receive a blessing! And that blessing may mean that we are changed forever.

Most of us will never do time in jail or need to face a brother we have betrayed but...All of us are living in times so full of anxiety it is easy to give in to the chaos, to choose to go under the covers and hide or give up at least for awhile. Maybe we just take a vacation or move away, like Jacob did, thinking we can avoid facing the challenges at least for now only to realize that wherever we go, we take ourselves with us and will ultimately have to turn around to face the challenges of our times.

Sometimes a vacation is exactly what we need, though. Sabbath rest is essential to being whole and healthy and I thank you for my time last week to just hang out with my family in the mountains at Long Barn.

Jacob was running away but also toward his new life, but we and he also need to return to the work we feel called to do. For the boys in Hillcrest, it has to do with growing up. For Jacob it was reconciling with his family.
For me, it means returning to the work I love and you who share it with me.
For you? What challenges do you feel you need to face in order to grow into the person God is calling you to be?

I know my own demons too well. Facing them again and again and holding onto God for a blessing, is work. But it is only the beginning of the work.
Transformation changes us forever. We are never completely rid of our demons: Anxiety, depression and death are ultimately with us to the end, at least of this life. Learning to claim the blessing of God's presence is powerful.

How do we remember that God's transformative power has visited us and continues to be present to guide us? What dreams keep you awake at night? Martin Luther King had a dream. It inspired and encouraged many to work to make our world a better place. My dreams are not always so inspiring.
They often seem more like Jacob's dream of wrestling. I wake up troubled and wondering what to make of them. I learned a long time ago to treat every character in my dreams as an aspect of myself that I can learn from.
The bad guys often have as much to teach me about myself as the good.
They can challenge my ego to get out of its own way!

Jacob becomes Israel, "One who Wrestles with God." Jesus inherited this essential nature, as a Jew, as an Israelite. He too had to wrestle with God.
He had to go into the wilderness before he could begin his ministry. He returned to solitude with God in prayer again and again, in order to continue to listen to and follow God's lead even unto his own death and resurrection. It is troubling that so much of the Christian world has come to see                 
unquestioned believing certain truths as the only work of faith. We are called to be "Ones Who Wrestle with God!" Our questions and doubts and fears allow us to grow closer to God. They make us remember we need to depend on a power greater than ourselves if we are to serve the greater good.
We are learning together to wrestle together, to not give up on each other,
to find our way and what God is calling us to do and to be in community.
The work is challenging and sometimes hard, but we continue to vision and dream and build together the Beloved Community. May is be so. Amen.